One Hell of a Day

I drove a bit further into Poland before Chris took over for the “night shift” and I tried to get some shut-eye. When we left Calais, we told Gordon – the medic we were meeting on the border – that we’d be there around 8am… in order to do so, we just had to keep going.

Around 6am, Chris pulled over and we swapped back for the last 80km, arriving at the Polish-Ukraine border at Medyka at precisely 8am.

After a bit of driving around (and a couple of phone calls), we found the aid “village” which refugees fleeing Ukraine walk through in order to get to the buses which are being supplied by the Polish government. These buses get the refugees to either the nearby Humanitarian Aid Centre or the local train station.

We parked the van over the road from the aid camp and met up with Gordon.

The aid camp was at once uplifting and depressing as hell. Uplifting because of all the wonderful volunteers who had come here from all over the world to help. Depressing because this place is even necessary. Over 4 million people have now been displaced, effectively made homeless by Putin’s disgraceful, barbaric and illegal war.

The aid camp consisted of a central path with marquees and awnings on either side. It was pretty busy, with a steady flow of refugees passing through. The aid agencies and charities based there offer hot food, medical supplies and assistance, but there’s no central organisation that’s taking charge, it’s all pretty ad-hoc.

I don’t know what it’s like on other border crossings, but the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was nowhere to be seen. Even more outrageously, I didn’t see much of a Red Cross presence either. When Gordon told us they didn’t have a defibrillator, I thought he meant his specific aid organisation didn’t have one. He meant that the entire aid camp on the border didn’t have one. There are elderly people who have been travelling for up to 10 days across Ukraine under constant attack from the Russians.

Look, I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but I can’t kick the feeling that these big charities should be there taking responsibility and ensuring that these vulnerable people fleeing war with just the clothes on their backs are not being preyed upon by predators: people traffickers and the like.


Gordon took me on a tour of the camp. People had come from all over the world to muck in and help out. There were volunteers from the Middle East, from India, from Australia, Latin America — different creeds and colours all working together. It was both inspiring and humbling. The refugees, their lives turned upside down by this brutal war, walked through the camp, looking understandably dazed and bereft. Many of them have lost everything, and none of them know when they’ll be coming back. Men aged between 18 and 60 have to stay and help the war effort, so the majority of the displaced people I saw were mothers with young children, children who may never see their fathers again.

After the quick tour (the camp isn’t very big), Bear and I unloaded the equipment from the van, assisted by Gordon. Once we had filled the “back room” of Gordon’s aid tent, we were given some breakfast from the Aussie volunteer across the way (bacon and scrambled eggs… yum). Over breakfast, Gordon explained to us that we could go to the old Tesco in Medyka town. It has been converted into a Humanitarian Aid Centre. There we could register as drivers and take a couple of refugees wherever they needed to go in Europe. Not to the UK, of course, because as of this trip, not a single visa had been granted for people who didn’t already have family in our “welcoming” country. 🙄

So we said our goodbyes to Gordon and the team and made our way to the old Tesco. In the car park there were aid and refugee charities, some portaloos and a free kitchen doling out what looked like scouse! In the building itself there were dozens of volunteers, together with Polish army, police and even the boy scouts of Poland were there.

Desks had been set up from all different European countries to help refugees find out more information about how they can get to where they need to go and to link them up with sponsors in whichever country they were hoping to go to. Of course the UK desk had the biggest flag, perhaps to compensate for our country being the least generous, and the only one in the whole of Europe that requires visas for Ukrainians… and not just the adults! Children and new born babies need visas too, in case they’re — y’know — Russian spies. 🙄🙄🙄

At this point in the proceedings we couldn’t even get into the refugee centre as you needed a wristband: white if you were a refugee and green if you were a registered driver. No problem, we went over to the driver registration tent in the car park to present our credentials, passports, driving licences etc… but the rules had changed the night before. Now only people working for charities or NGOs could register as drivers.

You know what? Good. We had only been in Medyka for a few hours and we had already heard a few horror stories about people traffickers taking advantage of this dire situation.

Happily, UK4UKR is a charity (not registered yet, but we’re working on it), so I knocked together a letter on my laptop with mine and Bear’s details, they took a copy of it and I was given a wristband which granted me entry to the aid centre.

Once inside, I made my way towards the UK desk, only to be told that only refugees were allowed to enter that particular area. A volunteer saw my “driver” wristband and asked how many seats I had and where I was going. I told her that I had 2 seats and would be driving back to the UK via Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Meanwhile, another volunteer, Yegor, said he might have a couple of people who need to go to the Netherlands. That was good for us, but they ended up going with somebody else. Again, just like at the border, it was all a bit ad hoc, lots of well-meaning volunteers, but little in terms of overall organisation. Yegor said he’d go and find somebody else that we could take on our return journey, and while he was gone I managed to get the other volunteer to ask somebody from the UK desk to come speak to me, which one of them did.

I explained to her that my partner and I had signed up for the “Homes for Ukraine” scheme, but we needed names and contact details of people from Ukraine in order to move forward with our application. I was there, then, at the border, so let’s meet some people! “It doesn’t work like that” I was told. Of course it didn’t. That would have been too easy. She asked for my email address, promising to write to me with more information. As I was giving it, a voice from behind me said, “You’re that guy off YouTube, aintcha?”

I laughed and pointed out there are lots of people on YouTube. “Yeah it’s you… Graham something… with the van driver fella, always banging on about Brexit.” Oh God, I thought… here we go. “Well I voted for Brexit and I think you’re dead wrong about everything, but I liked your videos. Three Blokes Down the Pub wannit?”

The guy’s name was Francis. Francis The Friendly Brexiteer. 😆

(I never got an email from the UK desk at Medyka so my partner and I have been using a Facebook group to get information instead.)

Then Yegor came back over — he had found a couple of people from Kherson in Ukraine who needed to get to Dusseldorf. That was very much on our way back to the UK, so I said yes, let’s do this.

While Yegor did their paperwork I went out to the van. While Bear and I were setting up the chairs in the back of the van, Francis the Friendly Brexiteer came over with his wife, who we quickly discovered was a Remainer (hey, it happens!). They had been ferrying refugees all over Europe for the last few weeks in their minibus, but with this new “no private drivers” rule coming in, they’d have to wait to get registered with one of the NGOs out there. Feeling charitable, since at least his wife didn’t vote for the most stupid thing imaginable (Brexit), I made them a UK4UKR letter so they could continue doing good.

Yegor came out of the centre with two young refugees: Alexandra, who was 20, and her cousin Alex, who was 16. We’d be driving them to Alexandra’s mum’s place in Dusseldorf. We finished off the paperwork, Yegor took a photo of all of us, with the van, and we hit the road

Alexandra spoke excellent English (and Spanish!), whereas Alex didn’t speak any English at all, so Alexandra would translate things for him. They really didn’t have much stuff with them, only a couple of small bags. Alexandra’s mum had been wanting her to leave Kherson since the invasion began, but Alexandra was like, “this is my home, why should I?” 

Sadly, Kherson, being very close to the Crimean peninsula (annexed by the Russians in 2014), was one of the first Ukrainian towns to fall to Putin’s thugs. Alexandra had been determined to stay, but food and medicine were running out and the Russian troops were killing civilians every day (some of the footage Alexandra had on her phone was simply horrific), so Alexandra decided it was time to take her cousin and get out of there. Her mum lives in Dusseldorf and her dad lives in Barcelona, so she had options, but she was determined to return to Ukraine as soon as the Russians leave, and help rebuild her home town. I dearly hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

By the time we left it was mid-afternoon, so we knew we wouldn’t get all the way there that night. So while Bear drove, I arranged for us all to stay in an amazing hotel on the German-Polish border called “Łagów Manor”. It was like a proper castle, but it was cheaper per room than the ibis “Budget” in Calais.

I figured Bear might be able to fit in the shower this time!

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